USFL Championship Game: Keys for Stallions, Stars

After 10 weeks of regular-season action and two thrilling playoff games, the USFL Championship Game is finally here.

The Birmingham Stallions and Philadelphia Stars will meet in the USFL Championship Game on Sunday, July 3, at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.

“It’s been a heavy lift, a lot of work by a lot of great people up against a tight calendar,” USFL VP of Football Operations Daryl Johnston said on “Speak for Yourself. Really, really proud of everyone who played a huge role in this. … I’m really happy for Birmingham and Philadelphia coming into this game.”

It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but we’ve learned a lot along the way. And RJ Young used that accumulated knowledge to provide several keys to Sunday’s title game.

Turnover margin 

Both the Stars and Stallions were in the upper half of the league in turnover margin. Philadelphia was tops in the league at plus-8 on the strength of their ballhawks in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Channing Stribling led the league in interceptions with seven, and the team had 13 picks total. Philly also recovered nine fumbles, while giving up seven.

The Stallions were fourth in turnover margin at plus-1, thanks to seven fumble recoveries, compared to only four fumbles lost.

RJ’s take:

“These teams are great at takeaways in different ways. Stribling has seven interceptions this year. He’s ready to go. You’re probably not going to want to throw near him all day if you’re J’Mar Smith.

“On the side, you also have Scooby WrightDeMarquis GatesJoJo Tillery, who can take the ball away from you by just knocking it out and scooping it up. You saw that with Gates against the New Orleans Breakers.”

Birmingham linebacker DeMarquis Gates takes the Kyle Sloter interception to the house for the Stallions touchdown.

The Stars were one of the top return teams in the league, ranking second in punt return average (12.6) and first in kickoff return average (27.8). Stallions wideout/returner Maurice Alexander was the main catalyst, as he led the league in kick return average (31.5) and was third in punt return average (12.6).

The Stallions weren’t too shabby either, ranking third in kick return average (24.3). Victor Bolden ranked seventh in kick return average (24.7) and fifth in punt return average (8.4).

RJ’s take:

“I always thought the kicking game was gonna be the one that decides it. We had kickers who could make it from 61, we had kickers who missed chip shots. It just seemed to affect everybody.

“But if you’re going to punt the ball to Maurice Alexander, good luck. If you’re gonna punt the ball to Victor Bolden, good luck. Either one of those guys can take it back.”

Philadelphia Stars WR Maurice Alexander Jr. and Birmingham Stallions WR/KR Victor Bolden Jr. each had huge returns for TDs

Quarterback play

Neither starting quarterback began the season in possession of that role — Birmingham’s J’Mar Smith was behind Alex McGough, while Philadelphia’s Case Cookus backed up Bryan Scott. But both took over because of injury, and both took full advantage of the opportunity.

Smith ended up playing in nine games, starting seven. He ranked third in passing yards (1,573) and touchdowns (10), while throwing only six interceptions. His 118.9 passer rating was the third-best among QBs who had at least 200 pass attempts.

Cookus also played nine games and started seven. He ranked fourth in passing yards (1,334) and second in touchdowns (12), with a mere five interceptions. His passer rating of 130.6 was the best in the league among those who had at least 200 attempts.

RJ’s take:

“Smith was my pick to be MVP of this league because I don’t think that Birmingham is in this position if not for him. … J’Mar has found ways to just go get it, whether it’s with his legs or completing passes down the field, he finds a way to get in the end zone. He’s got some tools around him.

“I also think it’s going to be interesting to see if Case Cookus can deliver the ball to his playmakers. … If he can get the ball out to guys like Bug HowardJordan Suell, Alexander … they’ll have an opportunity to go and score points. And if you can outscore the Birmingham Stallions, you’ve got a good chance of beating them.”